OVERLOOKED NO MORE: Emma Gatewood, First Woman to Conquer the Appalachian Trail Alone
Offered by Andrea Davis
The Washington Post’s New Series
With Overlooked, our new collection of obituaries for people who never got them, The Times is recalling the lives of those who were passed over for generations, for whatever reasons. Some were famous, like the poet Sylvia Plath, while others were more obscure, like the first American woman to win an Olympic championship (without ever knowing it).
Written by Katharine Q. Seelye
First Woman to Conquer the Appalachian Trail Alone
What the woman known as Grandma Gatewood accomplished in 1955 was remarkable. So is the untold story of what she overcame before that.
Emma Gatewood in 1959 as she hiked the 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail. By then, newspapers were calling her “America’s most celebrated pedestrian.”
Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.
What the public knew about Emma Gatewood was already remarkable. She was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail by herself in one season. She was 67 years old, a mother of 11, a grandmother and even a great-grandmother when she accomplished the feat in 1955. And she personified the concept of low-tech, ultralight hiking, spurning a tent and sleeping bag, carrying only a small sack and relying on her trusty Keds.
Gatewood was born to a farm family of 15 children in Guyan Township, Gallia County, Ohio. At the age of 19 she married 27 year-old P. C. Gatewood, a college educated primary school teacher, and later tobacco farmer, with whom she had 11 children. She had 24 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild living at the time of her death at 85.
Gatewood’s husband physically beat her on a regular basis starting from the first weeks of their marriage. She recalled being beaten nearly to death on several occasions. She suffered broken ribs, broken teeth, and other injuries during the abusive marriage. When her husband became violent, she would, on occasion, run from the house into the woods where she found peace and solitude. She eventually successfully divorced P. C. Gatewood in 1940; at a time when divorce was more difficult, and after her husband had repeatedly threatened to have her committed to an insane asylum as a means of maintaining control over her.
In 1955, at the age of 67, Gatewood told her children (who were by then adults) that she was going for a walk. They did not ask where or for how long, as they knew she was resilient and would take care of herself. About 5 years earlier, Gatewood read an article in National Geographic about the AT and thought “it would be a nice lark,” though in retrospect considering the difficulty she added “It wasn’t.” The magazine gave her the impression of easy walks and clean cabins at the end of each day’s walk. Thus she took little in the way of outdoor gear. She wore Converse sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. She would later say “For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.” Wikipedia/Grandma Gatewood